Tag Archives: shelters

The Most Desirable Traits in Dogs for Potential Adopters

Note from DoggyMom:

Shelters need all the help they can get to increase rates of adoption.  This latest research from Texas Tech University may help them do that and the results may surprise you – traditional ‘training’ may not be the answer.


Alexandra Protopopova has performed extensive research trying to increase the adoption rates and decrease euthanasia rates for animal shelters throughout the country.

Walking down the long rows of pens at any animal shelter reveals a veritable smorgasbord of canine variety.

Big dogs. Little dogs. Outgoing dogs. Shy dogs. Hyper dogs. Calm dogs. Happy dogs. Sad dogs.

But finding which one is right for a potential adopter is a big challenge for animal shelters throughout the country. The way to find that right fit between adopter and adoptee has almost always been about matching personalities and has never really had much scientific theory behind it.

Until now.

Alexandra Protopopova, a behavioral analyst and assistant professor in companion animal science in the Department of Animal & Food Sciences at Texas Tech University, has turned what started as her doctoral dissertation into a major research focus. She is attempting to determine what behavioral traits in dogs are most attractive to potential adopters and then working with shelters to train dogs to exhibit those traits when an adopter shows interest.

“Currently there are numerous pets living in animal shelters, not only in Texas but in the U.S. and around the world,” Protopopova said. “The problem is that a lot of these animals are living for quite some time at these shelters, even if the shelters are well-funded. Because of space restrictions, the animals are typically socially deprived, they are housed in single or very small groups without a lot of human interaction, and the euthanasia rates are still very high across the country.

“Can we figure out a way to train dogs in the shelter so that when people come in and see the trained dogs, it will improve their adoption rate and decreases euthanasia rates?”

The answer, through her research, appears to be a likely, yes.

But finding that answer not only meant discovering and displaying the most attractive traits in a dog, but also breaking down some of the myths that have, over time, seemed to determine the most attractive qualities in a canine companion.

Breaking assumptions
Determining what traits in dogs are most attractive to potential adopters involved not only observing canine behavior but also breaking away from some of the traditionally held assumptions from the past.

These are traits that Protopopova said she has been investigating since her time as a graduate student. Many shelters have training programs that are based on these assumptions, and it took going back to the basics and avoiding the widely held assumptions to determine what true traits in dogs were most and least attractive to potential adopters.

Kennel dog“A typical assumption was that training dogs to sit and not jump or bark would result in higher adoption rates, since that is what we had assumed adopters wanted in their dogs,” Protopopova said. “I also had my own assumption that people really like a dog that would gaze lovingly into their eyes, when in fact we saw no evidence of that in our research. So why don’t we take a step back and systematically figure out what it is people want to see in a dog? We approached it from a marketing perspective, and from there we could see, after knowing what behaviors are favorable to people, what programs we needed to work on to improve behavior and ultimately increase adoption rates.”

An extensive examination of canine behavior in kennels was then undertaken to determine which behaviors were the most and least favorable for potential adopters. Protopopova observed in-kennel behavior and examined everything the dogs did as people walked by.

Behaviors such as barking, sitting and jumping had no effect whatsoever on attracting potential adopters, but a dog that would pace in the kennel, turn their face away from those walking by or lean sadly to one side of the kennel would deter adopters and lengthen the dog’s stay in the shelter.

But the most telling behavior came when there was actual interaction between the dog and potential adopters outside the kennel. It is standard practice at shelters to allow potential adopters to select one or two dogs they might be interested in and allow them to interact in an outdoor area to see if they are compatible.

Two behaviors stood out among all others as the strongest determinants toward whether or not the dog was adopted. If the dog laid down in proximity to the adopter, that increased the likelihood of adoption. Conversely, if the dog ignored the initiation of the potential adopter to play, that decreased quite severely the likelihood of adoption.

Knowing those two key traits in dogs, Protopopova and her fellow researchers were able to develop a structured training program where the shelter volunteer or staff member could go with the potential adopter and guide the dog’s behavior based on its toy preference, knowing the dog would not ignore the toys it likes, or eliminate toys altogether if it was determined the dog did not like playing with toys.

Shelter volunteers and staff also would encourage the dog to lie down next to a potential adopter using treats. All these efforts, Protopopova said, resulted in a discernable increase in adoption rates.

“We also asked people why they chose the dog they adopted and why they did not choose the dog they didn’t adopt after those interactions in the experimental setting,” Protopopova said. “It’s fun to take those words the adopters use, those constructs and figure out what they mean. If an adopter told us they adopted the dogs because it was ‘social and liked me,’ they could simply mean ‘the dog lay down next to me.’”

This training program also is cost-efficient, knowing shelters do not have the resources to afford a professional training staff, which is why Protopopova considers it more behavior management than actual training.

But is it actual training? Or could this be considered more of a way of tricking the dog into behaving a certain way to increase its adoptability? That was certainly something Protopopova considered, though adopters indicated afterward the method was no more intrusive than the control group where the dog was allowed to do whatever it wanted.

“The interactions between adopters and dogs are only eight minutes long because that is how long previous research has shown it takes adopters to decide,” Protopopova said. “The dogs have only eight minutes to show their best side, so if we can do anything to show them off in the best light possible, that is a good thing for the adopter and the dog.”

The next step has been partnering with Maddie’s Fund foundation, which offers grants to shelters that works with community veterinarians, rescue groups and animal control agencies. Through Maddie’s Fund’s help, Protopopova is taking her research to a national scale, trying the same techniques at different types of shelters across the country.

“Will it work in smaller, rural community shelters? Will it work in the big city environment?” Protopopova asked. “Furthermore, will it work in different parts of the country? Our assessment was in Florida, but will it work in Texas, in Boston, in San Francisco? We will take it to six shelters nationally and try it out there.”

Other factors besides behavior
Obviously, factors beyond behavior go into why potential adopters choose the dogs they choose. Adopters can be looking for a certain breed or a certain size of a dog.

Certain breeds such as long-haired dogs, shepherd breeds and collie breeds tend to have high adoption rates, as do toy breeds such as Pomeranians or Chihuahuas. But a second question begged to be asked after the initial research by Protopopova – are some breeds more or less susceptible or accepting of behavioral training?

One problem with answering that question is the majority of dogs in a shelter are not purebreeds, but rather a mix of many breeds or dogs that have never had a purebred ancestor. So determining their trainability based on breed would be difficult.

Age also is an important factor in whether the dog’s behavior can be modified to make it more adoptable. Typically, puppies are more likely to be adopted because of their age and the fact adopters want to find a dog that can be with them for a long time. So training of puppies in an animal shelter setting might not be the best use of limited resources.

Conversely, older dogs that are well into their adulthood tend to stay in the shelter longer because adopters don’t seek them. So the ideal group for this experiment was dogs in their adolescence or just into adulthood. The good news is that, contrary to the old saying, old dogs can be taught new tricks.

“It just makes more sense if you’re a shelter volunteer to put your resources in training adolescent dogs,” Protopopova said. “But how does age affect training in general? It doesn’t affect it a whole lot. But, of course, socialization is very important for puppies. If you haven’t socialized your puppy to different people, different sounds, different environments and other dogs, you will have a much harder time young adult dog is much easier on families. Puppies engage in much worse behavior.”

Protopopova said in some cases it’s also difficult to determine how the dog was treated before arriving at the shelter. Dogs in shelters fall into one of three categories – owner-surrender, stray or confiscated due to abuse or cruelty.

The difficulty comes in owners who surrender dogs to a shelter. Shelters charge a fee to owners who give up their dogs, so in many cases, owners tell the shelter the dog was picked up as a stray to avoid paying that fee, or because they are wracked with guilt for giving up their beloved pet.

Those labels not only make a difference to potential adopters, but an owner-surrender dog, somewhat surprisingly, is more likely on a national scale to be euthanized than a stray, Protopopova said.

While the first study involved roughly 250 dogs, the bigger national study will involve many, many more and will involve dogs from a variety of shelter types, from municipal shelters to limited-admission shelters – a term Protopopova prefers over no-kill shelters. Protopopova is anxious to see how the study works on that national scale and how many adoptions encouraged by a dog’s modified behavior result in some dogs being returned.

Given what has been discovered so far, though, Protopopova is encouraged her efforts and those of her fellow researchers have forged a path to increasing adoptions across the board.

“We are very excited about this procedure because this is really the first time we have experimentally and systematically demonstrated an increase in adoption rates through behavioral training,” Protopopova said.

Source:  Texas Tech University media release

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‘No-kill’ what’s in a name?

I personally have no issues with the term ‘no-kill’ as in ‘no-kill animal shelter’.   Traditionally, this term has been used to mean an animal shelter that does not kill healthy or treatable animals even when the shelter is full.

No kill image

Euthanasia would only be an option for terminally ill animals or those that were considered too dangerous for public safety ever to be re-homed. 

In the case of the latter circumstance, it probably was easy for some shelters to bend the rules and still claim no-kill status.  If you believe that all pit bulls, for example, are inherently dangerous – or your local laws deem them to be and you are running a municipal shelter – then yes – you could claim no-kill status under the definition while killing those breeds of dog as a matter of course.

Others would claim that shelters would shift adoptable animals into their shelter and ship out animals that were less adoptable to achieve their no-kill status.

Ideologically, some people state that they would rather be ‘for’ something than against it.  So names are popping up such as “Humane City” or “Humane Rescue.” Some quote Mother Theresa who said “I was once asked why I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I’ll be there.”.

In other words, promote what you want and not what you don’t want.

Approximately two years ago, for example, Best Friends Animal Society changed its mission statement from “No More Homeless Pets” to “Save Them All.”

Do these changes make a difference?  I don’t know; I don’t have the data on this.  Presumably marketers and public relations experts have data to show increasing levels of support.

All I know is that New Zealand is definitely NOT a no-kill nation or a save-them-all nation.  We have a way to go to require responsible husbandry, pet ownership and the acceptability of adopting animals of all ages who end up homeless.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

How shelters can use the Pokemon Go craze to their advantage

I heard a business report recently that local shops can benefit from people using Pokemon Go by promoting themselves to people who are out and about playing the game.  For example, local cafes can offer specials for thirsty players to take a break.

And then the animal shelters got involved…

The animal shelter in Muncie, Indiana noticed that a lot of people were  walking around playing Pokemon Go.  Always in need of dog walkers, the shelter staff came up with the idea – play Pokemon and walk a shelter dog at the same time.

Pokemon Go poster

To take a Pokemon Dog, you have to sign a waiver form and you are reminded to watch where you are going for the sake of both you and the dog.

Walking is great exercise for dogs and humans.  If this Pokemon Go craze can help animals in shelters and rescues, I’m all for it.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

 

Homeless youth with pets

Homeless youth can benefit from owning pets but not without a few challenges, according to a new study from the University of Guelph.

Led by researchers from the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), the team found that homeless youth with pets are less likely to engage in potentially harmful behaviour, more likely to open up to veterinarians about their personal challenges and generally less depressed.

Homeless youth

(Photo courtesy Community Veterinary Outreach)

However, the team found that pets can make it difficult for their owners to obtain social services.

The study was published today in the journal Anthrozoӧs. 

Its findings mirror what researchers had been hearing anecdotally, said Prof. Jason Coe, Population Medicine.

“Those homeless youth with pets don’t want to risk incarceration or anything that would prevent them from being with their pets, so they are less likely to abuse alcohol or use hard drugs,” said Coe. He studies the human-animal bond and communication in veterinary care.

“We also found those without pets are three times more likely to be depressed, though we have not yet determined if this is directly relatable to having a pet.”

Among major challenges, he said, “Many shelters do not allow pets, so these youth may be limited in where they can sleep.”

Many youth are very open to discussing their struggles and issues with veterinarians, said lead author Michelle Lem, an OVC graduate.

She is the founder and director of Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO), a volunteer group providing mobile veterinary services to homeless people in Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph and Ottawa.

“We’re able to collaborate with public health and social workers as they attempt to reach these marginalized people, essentially using the human-animal bond and veterinary care as a gateway to provide accessible social support and healthcare,” Lem said.

“So many of these youth have lost trust in people, and the animal gives them unconditional love. They will do anything for their pets, which means they are less likely to commit potentially harmful acts, but also face more challenges with accessing housing, healthcare or addiction treatment services.”

Prof. Bill O’Grady, Sociology and Anthropology, studies youth homelessness and helped design the study.

Calling for pet-friendly shelters, he said “many homeless youth are prohibited from using services offered by the shelter system because they have pets, particularly dogs. There is an opportunity here to use this information when we’re developing services and plans for young people.”

Source:  University of Guelph media release

Professional athletes as spokespeople for animal welfare

Professional athletes in most competitive sports gain a lot of media attention for their achievements and rightly so.  Some also use their fame to help other causes, including animal welfare (and this makes me like them even more).

Some athletes, like professional baseball player David Ortiz (‘Big Papi’) of the Boston Red Sox, team with corporate sponsors to get the word out about animal adoption and shelters.  Such is the case in the video linked below, sponsored by Pedigree.

Earlier today, New Zealand’s All Blacks won a place in the Rugby World Cup final.  Sadly, I’m struggling to name an All Black that has used his fame to promote an animal welfare cause.  Please tell me if I’m wrong.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, Canine Catering Ltd, Christchurch, New Zealand

Hurricane Sandy animal rescue

Weeks after Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New York and New Jersey, animal rescue efforts continue.

In the affected areas, shelters were hit hard with damage and loss of power.    And because people are busy trying to recover from the storm, potential adopters just aren’t coming through the doors like they used to.  Through donations to a range of charities such as Best Friends and the Humane Society, animals are being re-located to safer areas of the country for adoption.

Earlier today, for example, 60 cats and dogs were flown to California on a plane donated by Southwest Airlines.  Crew members donated their time and BP donated the fuel.

You can help The Helen Woodward Animal Center by making a donation in support of the Hurricane Sandy refugees.

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In other rescue news, the ASPCA has established a new emergency boarding centre in Brooklyn thanks to a $500,000 donation by television personality Rachael Ray.    The boarding facility will help families care for their pets because their homes have been destroyed or badly damaged.

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And the Best Friends Animal Society continues to help through grants to a range of animal welfare organisations in the area.  Here’s their latest update:

Thank you for the outpouring of support for rescue groups and shelters in need after the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy. Your generosity has been astounding.

Because of you, Best Friends has—in a very short time– been able to award nearly $50,000 in grants to groups in need throughout the region. Here’s just a sample of some of the organizations we’ve been able to help.

Groups like Liberty Humane in Jersey City NJ were able to get help after the roof of their kennel was blown off! They had no power for eight days, their medicines were destroyed, and despite it, they were working to distribute pet supplies to displaced residents in their area. Thanks to you, we were able to offer financial assistance to help them rebuild.

Groups like Little Guild of St. Francis in Connecticut who took in 88 animals from areas affected by the floods were able to get some relief from those extra costs.

Road Runner Rescue in Upper Fairmount, Maryland had rescued more than 5,000 animals from high kill shelters over the past seven years, when suddenly, all of their medical supplies were wiped out from the storm.

“The supplies we lost were not just for our animals, but we also share them with our local county facilities,” said Sue Nevins, Road Runner’s founder. There are a lot of homeless pets depending on us….Our budget is already very tight and we recently had a costly cat surgery that was stretching our funds. Thank you Best Friends for supporting us in our time of need. We’re all in this together and it’s wonderful to be part of a great effort to save more lives.”

All in all, 14 animal groups and shelters so far have received desperately needed assistance, thanks to your support of Best Friends’ disaster relief. Thank you for pulling together for all of the victims of this storm at a time when it means so much to so many.

We’re continuing to give out grants to organizations affected by the storm, and we’ll keep you posted as shelters and rescue groups continue to rebuild. Your kindness is truly appreciated.

Learn dog trivia and feed homeless dogs at the same time

Freekibble.com is another site that uses the internet to help dogs.

Every visitor to the site is asked to answer a Bow Wow trivia question and, as part of that process, you donate 10 pieces of kibble to homeless dogs.   The food is provided by principal sponsor Halo dog food.

The site will tell you whether or not you have answered the question correctly and you can also check on the statistics about the previous day’s answers.  Over 6.5 million meals have been provided to homeless cats and dogs through the Freekibble programme and the count is rising!

You can also request to receive a daily email reminder to ensure that you click on the site every day.